"So," says the man at the next table to his server, "I hear you guys are famous for your fried chicken."
I hear the same.
It's a Tuesday night at Raleigh's Soo Café, and the restaurant is all but empty—me and my partner, loudmouth and family, two teenagers making out in the corner and waiting for takeout fried shrimp.
In addition to KFC, or Korean Fried Chicken, Soo offers other Korean dishes such as kimchi, galbi, bulgogi, bibimbap, and—
"Beer!" the man exclaims. "You can't have fried chicken without beer!"
The server nods solemnly. I slowly push my glass of water out of sight.
A big, spotty television plays K-pop music videos. There are fake plants, flowery paintings, and press clips, which adorn both walls and menus like report cards on a family fridge. Greg Cox, of The News & Observer, describes the chicken's "cult-like following." Southern Living features Soo in a roundup of "the South's best fried chicken." And in Walter, Dean McCord gets a little, well, purple: "We deserve this delicacy, and I'm going to do my damnedest to make sure Soo Café becomes an integral part of our food scene."
In 2014, the restaurant moved from its original location on Hillsborough Street to this larger spot in North Raleigh. Have some people still not gotten the memo? Where are all the KFC addicts?
Soo's menu trades in a choose-your-own-adventure format: pick your cut (wings, drumsticks, tenders, and so on), and pick your sauce (original, soy-garlic, North Carolina hot and spicy, old-fashioned). The kitchen, says owner Young Jo, is developing two more sauces.
I choose soy-garlic and old-fashioned, half a chicken each. They arrive piled high, steaming hot, shatteringly crispy. Soy-garlic—the most popular pick—is sticky-sweet, conjuring the classic Southern combo of salty fried chicken drizzled with honey. The "old-fashioned" is crimson colored and showered with sesame seeds. Your nose twitches just looking at it. Described on the menu as "most close to Korean flavor," the sauce reminds me how un-spicy American food tends to be.
It hurts so good. I roll up my sleeves, grab a pile of napkins, and request a glass—no, a pitcher, please—of water. Soon enough, I am left with a plate of little bones. I wipe my fingers, wrists, forearms, and face clean, then notice, from the corner of my eye, my table-neighbor doing the same.
"A well-deserved reputation!" he announces.
I have to agree.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Finger Lickin'"